By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Minh T Truong
By Molly Dunn
By Brooke Viggiano
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Molly Dunn
By Molly Dunn
By Eating Our Words
I was disappointed by the fried oyster poor boy. The oysters were small, and they had been fried until they were very dry. In my opinion, the fried oysters in a poor boy ought to be wet enough to ooze into the dressings and the bread to give the sandwich some moistness.
But the chef was right about the crab cakes. The crabmeat in the order of two we split this time was vastly superior to what we had tried before. The meat was in tiny shreds instead of big lumps, but it tasted sweet. Unfortunately, the crab cakes were ice cold in the center. They had been made in advance and refrigerated and hadn't spent enough time in the frying pan to heat them through. I sent mine back, but Paul was so hungry, he ate his cold.
The sad gumbo, dry fried oysters and cold crab cakes convinced me that Dave was right. The quality of the cooking at Valentino's has gone into serious decline over the course of a year.
20801 Gulf Freeway
Webster, TX 77598
Region: Outside Houston
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Seafood gumbo: $5.95
Oyster poor boy: $7.95
Crab cakes: $18.95
Shrimp salad: $9.95
Fish sandwich: $7.95
But I didn't really fault them on the crab.
Thirty years ago, blue crab (Callinectes sapidus) was so plentiful that crabbers couldn't get more than three bucks a dozen for them around here. Today, nobody in Texas can afford Texas blue crab anymore.
The problem isn't a scarcity of crabs in Texas, it's a scarcity of crabs in Maryland. Failing crab harvests on the Atlantic Coast have led fishing authorities there to put limits on the crab fishery.
But at Maryland's famous old crab houses, demand is as strong as ever. Pat Kerrigan at The Barn Crab House in Carney, Maryland told me over the phone that his restaurant was paying $27 to $32 a dozen for blue crabs ($160 for a box of five to six dozen). The restaurant is charging customers up to $65 a dozen for steamed crabs. And at 50 percent food cost, they really don't make any money on the crabs, even at that price.
To meet the local demand, seafood wholesalers on the East Coast are buying up the biggest and best crabs from Texas and Louisiana. Customers at Maryland crab houses think they are eating "wild caught local seafood" too. But in fact, a significant percentage of Maryland blue crabs don't come from Maryland anymore.
Meanwhile, crab-packing plants on the Gulf Coast are going out of business. They can't compete with Maryland restaurants for the big crabs that yield jumbo lump crabmeat, and they can't compete with the cost of labor overseas, so they are closing their doors.
The high price of blue crab has also created some opportunities. Bob Walsh (no relation), who used to run a seafood restaurant called Barnacle Bob's in Houston, relocated to a small fishing village on Mexico's Baja peninsula a couple of years ago and opened a crab-packing company called Dolphin Blue. He is now selling lots of crabmeat in Houston.
The crabs that Dolphin Blue sells are called warrior crabs (Callinectes bellicosus). Warrior crabs look a lot like blue crabs, but the bodies are larger, so they produce bigger lump meat. Unfortunately, the meat is blander than blue crabmeat.
One seafood dealer told me that about half of the crabmeat he now sells to Houston restaurants is imported. About 10 percent is pasteurized crab from Asia, and the rest is from the Pacific Coast of Mexico.
We can't take blue crab for granted anymore, and soon we will be facing the same sort of crisis over shrimp. The Texas shrimp harvest for September 2007 is down almost 50 percent from September of last year. Looks like we will be eating a lot more farm-raised and imported shrimp.
It's a world market for seafood now, and the local catch goes to the highest bidder. All of which conspires against the little seafood restaurant in Webster.
On my last visit to Valentino's at dinnertime, my companion compared the sensation of eating in the all-blue interior to sitting in an empty swimming pool. She wasn't very impressed with her crawfish pie, either. It came with a nice big puffy pastry crust, but the crawfish were baked in a boringly simple tomato sauce.
The restaurant had hung up signs along the shopping center entrance advertising all-you-can-eat fried shrimp and oysters for $12, which I took as a sign of utter desperation. But I couldn't resist trying it. The little shrimp were butterflied and heavily breaded, but the waiter insisted they weren't previously frozen. The tiny oysters were as overcooked as the ones on my poor boy had been.
Valentino's celebrated its first anniversary last month. I hope they make it to their second. But sadly, Mark Valentino's dream of serving "the highest quality of local wild-caught seafood in a unique restaurant" remains a dream.